AMHERST - While students are on their holiday break, members of a new citizen committee on the school budget will have a homework assignment.
The 10 members will each be writing 10 questions they want answered about school spending and proposed budget cuts for next year. Starting Jan. 4, they'll meet twice a week for at least six weeks before communicating their findings to the public.
The School Committee did not form the group of volunteers to promote or oppose the tax override vote planned for March 23, but to articulate questions and educate the public, said member Irv Rhodes. At the first meeting Monday, several members gave their perspectives on spending issues.
"Amherst needs to be more efficient in its use of tax dollars," said Stan Gawle. He said he opposes an override, but if the school budget "goes on a severe diet and gets down to basics, then I believe people will support it. There needs to be change before people open their pocketbooks."
Becky Demling said that when looking at the budget, it's important to understand programs.
"It's easy to say ¿Let's cut that' without knowing who it serves," she said. "We need to understand what we're cutting. We're trying to preserve as quality a school system as possible, not just getting down to a certain figure, not cutting for the sake of cutting."
Joe Cullen said the committee should look for "out-of-the-box thinking" and ask, "Why do we do it that way?"
School Committee member Andy Churchill said the purpose of the citizen group is to learn "what are the questions the community needs answering."
James Chumbley said he has a question about the teacher-student ratio. "I look at enrollment and divide by the number of teachers and get one ratio, but I hear the average class size is twice that," he said.
The committee will be compiling, through Chairwoman Alison Donta-Venman, a list of information it wants from Finance Director Rob Detweiler. Member Rick Hood said he wants line-by-line spending data in as detailed a form as Northampton provides on its Web site.
A budget forum has been scheduled for Jan. 21 and a public hearing on the school budget will be Feb. 2. The School Committee plans to vote on the regional and elementary budgets the week of Feb. 7.
The other members of the citizen committee are Ernie Dalkas, Jennifer Holme, Joe Gensheimer and Amy Brodigan.